forest of aspen trees turning yellow in fall
Aspen trees in autumn. © Kimball "Kim" Schmidt

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Planting Aspen Trees to Protect Communities from Wildfire

Summit County, Town of Breckenridge and The Nature Conservancy launch new wildfire mitigation project.

The Town of Breckenridge, Summit County and The Nature Conservancy in Colorado are launching a new forest health project to protect neighborhoods from high-severity wildfires and increase tree diversity in forest habitats. 

The partners are testing the potential for increases in aspen trees to act as natural fuel breaks for wildfire at the 46-acre Barney Ford open space site, just outside of downtown Breckenridge.  Since aspens are less flammable and have a higher moisture content than conifers, they may act to reduce fire severity. Adding more aspen in forests also has wildlife benefits, as it increases insect and plant biodiversity and creates valuable habitat for elk, moose and deer.

“We have seen that wildfires are becoming more prevalent and severe with warming temperatures and increased drought,” said Catherine Schloegel, watershed forest manager for The Nature Conservancy in Colorado. “Planting new aspen groves around communities could be a primary climate change adaptation tool. Land managers can address fire risk while maintaining the benefits of forests for people and nature.”

In Summit County, 99 percent of homes are in the wildland-urban interface, an area where houses are within and adjacent to forests. In order to reduce wildfire risk in the wildland-urban interface, land managers have created community protection zones, a clearing of up to 600 feet between homes and the forest edge. By clearing areas of dense conifers, they seek to create places where firefighters can safely engage in a potential wildfire and remove beetle-killed trees that may pose additional hazards.

Since 2006 the White River National Forest and local land managers, such as Summit County Open Space & Trails and Town of Breckenridge Open Space have worked to protect Summit County’s residents by implementing fuel reduction treatments on over 10,600 acres of forest above Dillon Reservoir. Almost 60 percent of these fuel-reduction treatments were clear-cuts in lodgepole pine forests.

However, within these cleared community protection zones, new management challenges have surfaced. Lodgepole pine can be a prolific cone producer and the forest can start to grow back within a few years, recreating the high wildfire risk. Planting aspens in place of conifers aims to address this forest management challenge by providing a longer-term solution, while also storing carbon.

"Following the pine beetle infestation, the Town of Breckenridge and Summit County have worked with the U.S. Forest Service to design a network of clearcuts across our lands that connect with thinning projects of USFS lands. These formerly clearcut areas are dominated by young lodgepole pines that, when thinned, provide an excellent opportunity to diversity our forests with aspens,” said Anne Lowe, Open Space & Trails Manager for the Town of Breckenridge.

The project will examine how to best create and manage aspen groves within areas previously covered by coniferous forests. At Barney Ford, the partners will plant aspen seedlings, grown from locally collected seed, within a protective enclosure to reduce browsing by ungulates while the seedlings establish. Inside the enclosure, partners are using snow fences to create the moist conditions aspen need to thrive. Over the coming years, the partners will collect regular data on seedling growth and survival.

In addition to the work at Barney Ford, the partners are collaborating with local universities to identify favorable areas for future aspen planting. The first step has been to create a map predicting current aspen cover across the Southern Rocky Mountains. The second step will be to create a map predicting locations where aspen could thrive based on local topography and predictive models of future climate change. 

"We certainly don't need any more evidence of how destructive wildfires can be," Summit County Open Space & Trails Director Brian Lorch said. "Across the West this year, we have seen historic levels of devastation by wildfire. So it's important for us to identify strategies that can help us adapt to the new realities we are facing as we deal with the impacts of climate change."

This project will provide tools for land managers and communities first and foremost in Summit County, but also more generally across the Southern Rocky Mountains, guiding future wildfire mitigation efforts in high-elevation forests.

Weather permitting, the first aspen tree planting event will take place on September 30, 2020.

This project has been funded by a grant through Vail Resorts’ 1% for the Forests initiative. This program contributes 1 percent of all summer lift tickets and activity revenue to fund forest restoration projects on national forests lands. The project also received in-kind support from Summit County Open Space & Trails and Town of Breckenridge Open Space. 

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 79 countries and territories, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.